Friday, January 20, 2023

Book Stack ~ December 2022

 A monthly post about what I've been reading, with aspirations but no real hope of reading down a very tall stack of books. Previous posts from this year:

May & June 2022 

October 2022 

November 2022

Every year when I get to my final Book Stack post of the year, I contemplate whether I should continue with these posts into the new year or not. After all, the blog is dead as a format, right? But this is also the only way I track what I read (I've tried a reading journal in the past, and I'm just not that into it, and I don't really like Goodreads, not least because it's part of the Evil Empire, and I don't care to note the date on which I start a book or how long it took to read), but I've kept up with a monthly reads blog post for X years now, and I know from flipping back through the 2022 posts that I read 86 books last year. Which is neither here nor there, but it's a fun fact. So will I keep going in 2023? We'll see. In the meantime, here are December's reads, starting from the bottom of the stack.

There's an unwritten rule in Maine that if you own a camp (which means a vacation house on a lake, no matter how humble or luxurious), you must have, somewhere on the shelves of that camp (and if it's rustic, the shelves will be horizontal 2x4s of the open wall bays) a copy of We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. In the book, Rich chronicled her experience of moving to an extremely remote spot of western Maine in the 1930s, where the only access to the Outside is by lake (boat in summer, over the ice in winter, and not at all during freeze-up and break-up). It's a funny and lighthearted book that makes even the most grueling physical labor involved in surviving, let alone keeping house and raising a family, under such circumstances sound like a lark. After reading Rich's biography in November, I ordered used copies of some of her other books (when the three arrived, each with a turquoise hard cover, devoid of dust jacket, E asked me if I'd bought "one of those sets" of books--you know, the old ones with matching covers that you can, apparently, order as decorative elements irrespective of their contents). One of these, Innocence Under the Elms, which I read in December, recount's Rich's childhood, growing up in Bridgeport, MA, where her parents ran the local newspaper. Nothing much of consequence happens in the book, but Rich's writing is so wonderful in its subtle humor and deep perception and her childhood so unusual--both compared to anything anyone alive has experienced (she was born in 1903) and compared to her contemporaries because of her family's occupation, social status, and politics--that it's a delightful, entertaining read.

I pulled Stitches in Time by Barbara Michaels (which I just read three years ago and again three years before that) off the shelf in early December with the intention of giving it to a friend who I knew would love a book about a haunted quilt (because I mean, come on, who wouldn't?). But then I decided to read the first chapter, as practice for a book coaching lesson on first chapters. And then I kept reading. Since it takes place around the holidays (it may be the only holiday-themed Barbara Michaels book, but I'm not sure and I'm determined to find out), it was a perfect read for December. Because as Dickens taught us, Christmas time is prime ghost time.

As I was reading Stitches, I remembered that Michaels had another vintage-clothing themed book, Shattered Silk, which I couldn't find on my shelves, so I ordered a copy of that. It takes place in the midst of a hot Washington summer, so wasn't as seasonal, and the source of trouble was human-caused, so no ghosts. But it turns out that some of the tangental characters in Stitches are the central characters in Silk, so it was fun to go back and read about where they'd come from (like an origin story prequel), although it wasn't as fun without the ghosts.

After reading those two books, I had to go back and reread (after ordering a copy--I can't believe I didn't already own this one) Ammie, Come Home, one of Michaels's first books. Ammie, like Stitches, is a delightfully creepy ghost story, although it's the house that's haunted and not a quilt. Two of the central characters of that story appear very tangentially in Silk and come back with a bigger role in Stitches. The three books are considered the Georgetown Trilogy, although they were probably not planned that way, having been published in 1968 (Ammie), 1986 (Silk), and 1996 (Stitches).

In December I also read "Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris, which I always make time to do while sipping eggnog beside the Christmas tree.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Transition Time

Over this holiday season, I've been conscious of experiencing many lasts as I contemplate the twins heading off to college next year--the last time I'll slip an ornament, a clementine, and chocolate into each shoe hastily placed before the wood stove on St. Nicholas Eve, the last time we'll trek into the woods as a family to find the perfect Christmas tree, the last time we'll fashion a Yule log menorah from a piece of firewood and invite friends over for latkes and dreidel. While all three kids will likely come home for some period of time around Christmas for many years to come, we'll no doubt let go of most of the small celebrations I've built in over the years to extend the holiday season, dissipate some of the anticipatory build-up of pressure around one big day of greed and gluttony, and focus on non-consumeristic, non-obligatory, non-performative ways of enjoying this time of year. Some of those rites have already gone by the wayside: the boys outgrew the Christmas Book Countdown years ago; they lost interest in the 12 Days of Christmas calendar a while back; and this year I had a book event on the Solstice, so we didn't have our traditional hike and small fire by the river.

It's a funny thing about parenting, how we anticipate, make note of, and remember each first--first clap, first word, first time riding a bike without training wheels--but lasts slip by without notice. Sometimes we don't even realize it was a last until weeks or months or years have passed. When was the last time he said 'vigenar" or "skabetti"? When was the last time I tied his shoes for him? When was the last time I could pick him up? So being aware of lasts as they happen is a strange feeling. It's tinged with both nostalgia and relief--nostalgia for the sweet time in my kids' lives when the holidays were full of magic and relief that I will soon be freed of the effort of keeping that magic alive.

People have been asking me for a while now if it isn't going to be hard to let my youngest two kids go when they head off to college next year, if I dread facing the empty nest. Of course I'll miss my kids, and I'm sure people mean well, but I have to admit to taking umbrage at the question. First, this was the goal of the whole project: to raise competent humans who can launch themselves out of the nest and live their own lives. I'm thrilled for them, and excited to see what this next phase brings. Second, the idea that something essential will be missing from my life with my kids away fails to account for the immense amount of self-sacrifice and physical and emotional labor I put into raising them or consider that maybe I'm exhausted by the effort and due for a break. Finally, the question implies that I *am* my kids, that I don't have an identity outside of "mother" and won't have a raison d'ĂȘtre once they're gone. So forgive me if I respond with a glib statement about being well shot of them as I dust my hands together.

While the time when I get to (more) fully inhabit myself as an individual human being is months in the future, I've been getting a preview of what it will be like to extract myself from the mother identity this week as I've begun recording my dreams and goals for 2023 and beyond. I still have to account for them and their not inconsiderable needs over the next nine months of getting them into and off to college, but after that there's a bit of a blank slate. Thinking about extracting me from them feels a bit like trying to take off a snug jacket with the zipper jammed in the up position. For so many years my goals have had to be either expanded to encompass a family or truncated by the limitations imposed by family life. I'm not sure I even know how to dream big anymore, or what my life will look and feel like next September. I had thought, at one time, that I'd drop the twins off at college and then keep on driving, west in a camper van, to explore deserts and mountains and rivers. But as the time draws nearer, I see that's not an entirely realistic plan. For one thing, I don't even have a camper van. 

2023 will be punctuated, no doubt, by many lasts, many moments of nostalgia and relief, as all three of my kids make big steps toward being their own adult selves. For me, I hope it will be marked by a few firsts, as I fiddle that jammed zipper loose, try new things, and learn to inhabit the post-mom me.

A version of this post went out recently to subscribers of my newsletter, along with some bonus material. Subscribe here and receive a free PDF of my illustrated short essay "Eleven Ways to Raise a Wild Child."
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